The starving children who reached Israel via Tehran

A new book tells the extraordinary story of the Jewish children who travelled 13,000 miles through Siberian gulags and central Asia to escape the Holocaust


Growing up in Haifa, Mikhal Dekel didn’t view her Polish-born father as a Holocaust survivor. Unlike friends with tattooed arms and memories of concentration camps, he’d come to Mandate Palestine as a teenager, spoke Hebrew like a native, and never talked about the war.

In fact Hannan had survived a remarkable ordeal. At 12, he escaped Nazi Germany through the Soviet Union, travelling almost 13,000 miles through Siberian gulags and central Asia, before making it to what would become Israel at the height of the Holocaust. His penultimate destination, along with 920 other Jewish youngsters including his sister and cousin, was Iran; Hannan was one of a rare group called the Tehran Children.

Dekel, today an English professor at City College of New York, knew only that he had been rescued, but not what he went through. She has spent the last decade finding out, travelling between Poland, Uzbekistan and Russia to piece together his odyssey. She has now written a book about her journey, which tells his story and that of thousands more refugees.

That many Poles — Jewish and non — fled to Soviet Russia and ended up in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan) is widely known. Indeed, Dekel points out, it’s the story of most Polish Jewish people who survived Nazi extermination. But the specifics of their journey, and particularly how some 116,000 Poles found themselves in the Middle East, has rarely been documented in full.

As she explains in her exhaustively researched book, Polish refugees were generally deported to the Soviet interior and sent to labour settlements or gulags. From there, many were moved on to central Asia, with a minority reaching Iran, Lebanon, Syria or India. Around 100,000 non-Jewish Poles were taken to Palestine, where they spent the rest of the war.

Her book looks at the extraordinary hardship and deprivation the refugees endured, the communities they interacted with, the Zionist groups that sought to help, and the aid organisations involved with their survival. It also sets out the relative improvement that was life in Iran, where conditions improved even for the Jewish refugees. “I tell a very big story,” she says.

Although they avoided the death camps, refugee life was unimaginably brutal. Soviet regulations meant food was scarce for everyone in central Asia, with the refugees, especially Jewish ones, worst off. Starvation and disease were rife; many people perished. Dekel’s father, who built a career in the Israeli military, died aged 66 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which he most likely contracted as a child eating infected animal brains, the only food source he could find.

Yet Dekel always thought of the Tehran Children as the ones who had been saved. “I really hadn’t known the level of suffering. I had a fantasy of my father being almost airlifted from point A to point B.”

She thinks it suited Israel to tell only the story of rescuing the children. “This was the first group of refugees or war survivors that came to Israel, in the middle of the war. This is 1943, people are astonished,” she says.

“There are several interviews with Israeli politicians who said seeing these children was a turning point, that’s when I knew we needed a Jewish state.”

“I think Israel had a motivation to remember it in this way, just like Poland has a motivation to remember the Soviets doing evil things to the Poles,” she adds. “Memory is connected to politics in a direct way, and people’s personal memory is shaped by the collective memory.”

In some ways, they did seem like the lucky ones. For one, theirs was not a singular Jewish humiliation and genocide. “Millions were deported and millions starved in the Soviet Union and Central Asia, including the people of Central Asia,” says Dekel. “Yes the Jews were probably at the bottom of the chain, but there is something more awful about being completely targeted as a Jew.”

When these children came to Palestine, she says, everybody pitied them. “They are in rags, they look terrible, they are skinny,” she says. “But two years later when people realised what had happened [in Europe] and the survivors from the camps start coming, relatively speaking these children seem like they didn’t have it so bad. I think that’s partly why they aren’t commemorated in the same way.”

Her book is part history, part travelogue, as she retraced her father’s footsteps, sometimes accompanied by her now-teenage son. What struck her was that refugees stayed in many of the places they were deported to, building new lives in Komi or Uzbekistan, or Iran. “What was to my father a point of transit was an endpoint for others and became their identity,” she says. “My father to me was an Israeli and I didn’t know him as anything else. I saw all these identities that he could have had.”

Researching his pre-war life has given her new perspective on her father, from his mushroom-hunting hobby — something she discovered he did regularly as a child in Poland, where his family owned a successful brewery — to his mannerisms. She hopes to publish her findings about her family’s Polish history in a separate book.

It also helped her understand Hannan’s complex personality. Like many survivors, he had an extreme relationship with food and hunger.

“He used to go into the garbage and take out anything that wasn’t completely spoiled. And he had a certain type of anxiety and aloneness, in the sense he felt he could only depend on himself.”

Somewhat remarkably, Hannan’s parents both survived the war in Central Asia, although their emigration to Palestine was stalled by the British authorities. His father perished in 1949 in West Germany, still a refugee. Five weeks later his mother came to Israel, living with her son throughout her life.

“In some ways he couldn’t separate from her, and I see that as a response to the fact that they were separated for so many years. He felt tremendous guilt at having been saved while his parents were left inside the war.”

One of the most fascination aspects of the Tehran Children’s story is the encounter it led to between European and Persian Jews; western and eastern Jews with hugely different religious lives meeting for the first time. The native community was not wealthy, although many welcomed and helped the Polish Jews. The meeting had a profound impact.

“Persian Jews were not particularly Zionist and not particularly organised before,” explains Dekel. “When refugees come to a place they are changed but the place is also changed. So the Iranian Jews organised to help these Jews and they remained organised.”

The Tehran Children were heralded in Palestine when they arrived, but it wasn’t a smooth transition; the country then was no safe haven, and many would soon end up fighting for Israel’s independence.

Hannan, his sister Regina and cousin Emma ended up at Kibbutz Ein Harod.

“I think they did appreciate simply being amongst Jews and not having the threat of antisemitism, but these are children who grew up in very conservative, bourgeoise homes, and they found themselves in a collective settlement. It’s very poor, it’s socialist, it has co-educational showers,” she says. “It was a culture shock, but also there was a sense of there was no other option. And when you know there is no other option you make it work.”

Researching Hannan’s journey has made her a passionate advocate for refugee rights; she is involved with the JDC in New York and is horrified by the child migrants separated from their parents at the US border. “It makes me understand how vulnerable and endangered a child is when they are separated from their parents,” she says. She is struck by the fact that many modern refugees are travelling a reverse odyssey, coming from the Middle East to Europe.

Since her book came out in the States, Dekel has had myriad emails along the lines of “I thought my mother was the only one”.

“One reason the story is not better known is that many of the archives I used were not available previously,” she says. But more, it’s that historical memory is ultimately national memory, so this story is remembered differently by different nations. “We don’t hear what we don’t know,” she says.

“For example, in Israel what’s remembered is the part where the refugee children were taken to pre-state Israel. In Poland the only part that’s known is the story about the horror of the Soviet Union, but not the parts about Iran. In Soviet Russia the story of the deportations was repressed.”

Dekel’s hope is for the book to be published in Poland and Israel, “because it’s such a huge part of a Holocaust history that hasn’t been told”. Thanks to her research, the United States Holocaust Museum is starting a new collection focused on those who took Hannan’s route. Dekel is gratified by this and the fact that so many readers are getting in touch.

“Everyone thinks it is only their story,” she says. “To fill in that history is important.”


Tehran Children — a Holocaust Refugee Odyssey by Mikhal Dekel is published by W. W. Norton & Company


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